Board Votes Against Heli-Skiing in Kachemak Bay State Park

Move puts hold on effort until park’s management plan is updated.

 

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A final decision has yet to be made on a controversial proposal to allow heli-skiing in Kachemak Bay State Park and the State Wilderness Park but the park’s Citizen Advisory Board has voted against it.

At its meeting November 14th in Homer, the Kachemak Bay State Park Citizen Advisory Board voted against allowing heli-skiing until after the park’s management plan has been updated.

Park Ranger Roger MacCampbell says the park’s current plan was originally written back in 1986 and has only been updated once – in 1995. MacCampbell says that, ideally, a park’s management plan should be updated every five to 10 years.

“Things change,” he said. ” We try to anticipate trends and how things are going to change but it’s really hard to say what’s going to be out there 20 years from now.”

The process is on track to start next year, says, MacCampbell, and employees with the state Department of Natural Resources have it as a top priority. He warns, however, that the process could be expensive for the state – and it could take a year or more.

Before a final plan is approved, MacCampbell says the public will have ample opportunity to chime in on which activities they’d like to see in the park – and which they would not.

For now, at least, MacCampbell says heli-skiing appears to be losing the battle for public opinion. The parks department received several hundred comments on the subject, he said, and everyone who attended the advisory board meeting last week was opposed to the idea.

Kenai Heli-Ski is the company interested in expanding its operations into Kachemak Bay State Park. A representative from Kenai Heli Ski could not be reached in time for this story but Chris Shelly laid out the company’s plans on KBBI and KDLL’s “Coffee Table” program November 14th.

Shelly said Kenai Heli Ski is sensitive to concerns raised by park residents and users – including how noise from its helicopters might disturb local wildlife and park residents. He promised that if the company is someday allowed to operate in the park, it would “fly neighborly” and would adhere to any restrictions that might be put in place.

“We want to be part of the community and … we want to get along with our neighbors,” he said.

The issue over allowing heli-skiing in the park isn’t the only one driving the push for an updated management plan. MacCampbell says a plan update is also likely to spell out policies related to the proposed Kachemak Bay Water Trail, funding and staffing for park employees, the number and availability of public use cabins and whether or not to allow jet-skis in Kachemak Bay.

Until the management plan is updated, the final decision on heli-skiing rests with Parks and Outdoor Recreation Director Ben Ellis. As of Monday, Ellis had not made any decision public but MacCampbell expects a decision on the coming days.

Aaron Selbig/KBBI


New Assisted Living Center Offers More Choice For Seniors

A new senior center is set to open next spring in Soldotna, part of a growing industry on the Kenai Peninsula.  Partners from Riverside Assisted Living, who are constructing two of three new senior housing centers on the central peninsula, pitched their new facility at a presentation Friday morning at the Kenai Senior Center.

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The two-story,  48-unit, 32-thousand square foot Riverside Assisted Living Center is set to open in April of next year.  It will be one of three senior centers set to open next year, the other two will be in Kenai.

After a short introduction by one of Riverside’s partners, Rob Nash, about a few of the features and amenities in the new facility (a beauty salon, pool hall and more), Care Coordinator Lane Beauchamp dove into qualifications for living at Riverside, which includes assessing phsyical needs as well as a financial analysis to see how payments from Medicaid will be included.

“They’re looking at folks who are pretty much on the verge of going into a nursing home.  They might be headed that way real soon if they weren’t either in assisted living or getting a lot of help at home,” Beauchamp said.

These assessments are necessary in determining eligibility for Medicaid waivers.

“What they’re looking for (for the waiver program) is if you need help with basic things like bathing, dressing, meal preparation…if you need a lot of help in doing those things, you may qualify for the waiver,” she said.

The average monthly cost for assisted care living is about seventy-five-hundred dollars a month, Beauchamp said, though Nash estimated Riverside’s rate to be in the $5,000-$6,500 range.

“In order to get into an assisted living home, one: you can always pay privately,” Beauchamp said, addressing the financial aspects of moving into Riverside.

As for the Medicaid waiver program, Beauchamp said it allows for individual income (no spouses) of up to $2,095 per month.

As the population of the area ages, demand for assisted care has increased.  Kenai Mayor Pat Porter, who spent many years running the Kenai Senior Center, is happy about the future of senior services on the Central Peninsula.

“We do have smaller facilities (for assisted living) in the Soldotna, Kenai, Sterling area and those have been very helpful to fill a void, but this will be another option for people who would like to live in a larger complex that has more amenities available for them,” Porter said.

The Riverside group is also planning another assisted living center in Kenai at the current site of the Anchor Court trailer park.  That facility is tentatively slated to open in 2013.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Parnell: Mutual Responsibility Between State, Industry Will Ensure Safety In Developing Cook Inlet Energy

Talk about fishing got most of the attention during Governor Sean Parnell’s most recent visit to the Kenai Peninsula, but he did make some time to discuss some of the issues surrounding energy production in Cook Inlet.

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Governor Sean Parnell’s visit to Kenai Tuesday was dominated by talk of salmon fishing, fisheries management, and of course the announcement of a $30 million study to find out more about recent Chinook salmon declines.  But as south central prepares for a possible natural gas shortage in the next couple years, energy companies are working quickly to get drills in the ground and bring Cook Inlet’s enormous gas supply to market.

That has raised concerns about how well prepared some of these companies are to operate in such a challenging natural and regulatory environment.  Buccaneer Energy has had a jack-up rig parked in the Homer Harbor for about three months for all manner of repairs and upgrades while in possible violation of the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Management plan and Hilcorp has recently been able to move forward with acquiring assets from Marathon only after the Federal Trade Commission dropped its investigation of that deal after a letter from the state Attorney General’s office recommended the merger go unchallenged.

To Governor Parnell, the most important thing now is finding ways to get these resources out of the ground and to consumers.

“We’ve got a huge resource here in the Inlet, particularly with oil and gas.  That means jobs and livelihoods and cheaper energy for south central residents,” Parnell said.  ”So bottom line is, we have a resource that belongs to Alaskans that needs to be used by and for Alaskans,” he said.

Parnell said that expectations run two ways between the state and the companies operating in Cook Inlet.  The state is expecting businesses to be respectful stewards of the areas in which they operate, and they in turn have expectations of the state.

“The expect that they can work with government agencies on a consistent and fair basis so that they know the rules of the road,” he said.  ”Our responsibility is to ensure that they know those rules of the road and we can hold companies to that.  On the companies’ side, they need to know that they will not be targeted…just because they’re in a particular business,” said Parnell.

He said the question of making sure operators are ready to business here is partly up to them.

“Our agencies make sure that our regulatory requirements are met, it’s the companies’ responsibility to make sure they meet them, and with that mutual accountability there, I think we can create a growing economy and cheaper energy for south central residents,” he said.

Governor Parnell made his comments in Kenai during a community meet and greet at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

Shaylon Cochran/KDLL


Parnell Announces $30 Million Salmon Study in Kenai

Governor Sean Parnell visited Kenai Tuesday to meet with local officials, mingle with residents and make a $30 million announcement.  That’s the amount the Governor is proposing to spend on a five-year Chinook Salmon Research Initiative.

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A room filled mostly with fishermen was greeted with the news that $10 million will be marked in the budget for next year, to be devoted to king salmon research.  Before making his announcement, Governor Parnell made it around the room to hear what was on people’s minds, and mostly it was fishing.

“We just want him to realize how important reds are to the community,” said Megan Smith, an east side set netter, after the Governor spoke with her and fellow setnetters Amber Every and Lisa Gabriel.

“Next summer, hopefully we can move forward and work for a solution to let everyone harvest and everyone have a piece of the pie, because there’s plenty for everyone,” Smith said.

“He does know the issues and I felt he was very receptive to us,” Gabriel said of her brief conversation with Parnell.

“We need to figure out what’s happening with these king salmon; is there a conservation concern, and if so how we’re going to deal with it,” Every said about the research initiative.

The Governor clued the three in on his announcement just before he took to the podium to make it official.

The research plan is the product of a two-day salmon symposium held in Anchorage in October, when scientists, fisheries managers and fishermen from across the state pitched in ideas about the kinds of information they were interested in gathering and what a research plan would include.

The plan that came out of that meeting will include adult, juvenile and harvest assessments, plus genetics and biometrics all taken into account with what makes up the local knowledge base of these fisheries.  The $10 million used to get the program started this year is in addition to the f$14.6 million the Department of Fish and Game already spends annually on Chinook research and management.

The Governor offered his pledge that regardless of the causes for poor king salmon returns that forced both sport and commercial fisheries this summer, the fishermen affected by those closures aren’t alone.

“There’s nothing quite like being concerned about where you’re going to be, how you’re going to make it through the winter, how you’re going to pay next month’s bills,” Parnell said.

“There are no easy answers to the fish dilemmas that we have. Sometimes there are simplistic answers given but there are no simple answers.  All I know is that we’re in it together.  And I know that I will work with every one of you and every group imaginable to work together to solve these issues and make sure we have a sustainable fishery,” the Governor said.

The Chinook Salmon Research Initiative is included in the Governor’s budget for the 2014 fiscal year and will use information from 12 indicator river systems from all over the state to develop new strategies that will grow king salmon returns.

Shaylon Cochran/KDLL


The Economics of Fisheries Closures in 2012

Commercial fishermen and others who felt the economic effects of this year’s fishing season on the Kenai Peninsula are still grasping for a full understanding of how, and how much, these industries contribute to the local economy. The Kenai Peninsula Borough has taken the first steps in putting together an economic study that might provide that understanding.

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There is no doubt that the 2012 fishing season was a challenging one for the many anglers and setnet fishermen whose livelihoods depend on strong salmon returns and opportunities to harvest those salmon.  But learning the extent of the damage of the past season has been a challenge.  In August, Governor Sean Parnell’s office estimated commercial fishing losses to be ten million dollars.  That figure was revised a couple weeks ago to nearly seventeen million dollars.  While it’s important to have a firm understanding of commercial losses from the east side set net fishery, since that fishery is eligible for federal disaster aid, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Economists talk a lot about consumer confidence, and I can tell you that next year, when the east side setnetters are gearing up for a fishing season, their confidence is not going to be real high,” said Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre during an episode of ‘The Coffee Table’.  

Mayor Navarre was joined that day by an economist who has studied Cook Inlet fisheries extensively, UAA economics professor Dr. Gunnar Knapp.  Knapp recognizes the sizeable economic contributions of both sport and commercial fishing to the area, but, he says gathering enough of the right kinds of data is a challenge in painting a full picture of the entire fishing economy.

“On the commercial side, we have pretty good numbers, reliable numbers on how many fish are caught, what fishermen are paid and how many people work in that,” said Knapp.
“It’s a lot tougher on the sport fish side to track the same kinds of things because the way the sport fishing effects the economy is more indirect.  All these people come down to sport fish and then they hire guides or charter vessels and then they spend money in stores and restaurants, hotels and gear shops…and it’s a lot harder to put numbers to it, although a lot of work’s been done,” Knapp said.

He said efforts to gather those statistics have been made at different times to varying degrees of success at both the state and borough level.  Navarre announced in October the Borough is looking into a full economic study in order to know more about those kinds of data.

Putting together an economic study of such a large portion of the economy involves a lot more than simply tracking down numbers related to retail sales or how many permits were sold by the state.  Given the challenges seen in 2012, one aspect of the study would likely be the effect of specific management decisions, as management decisions have been pointed to as the largest contributor to the commercial fishery’s poor economic performance, Knapp said.

“One of the central questions is ‘what are the implications for lots of different (user) groups of particular ways of managing the fisheries?’ and also…in-season decisions that might need to be made.  That’s a complicated question,” said Knapp.

Simply bringing up the possibility of conducting an economic study, and consulting with an economist familiar with industry mark the first steps toward actually gathering and synthesizing data, Navarre said, adding that any study would have to serve a specific purpose for the Borough.

Shaylon Cochran/KDLL



Animal Rescue Issues Heard At Borough Assembly

With just a few non-controversial items on the agenda for Tuesday evening’s Borough Assembly meeting, there was an opportunity for the Assembly to hear some public testimony and recognize the efforts of one certain championship football team.

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Shaylon Cochran/KDLL


Soldotna Native Has A Shot At $100K Prize

One of Soldotna’s own has been chosen to compete for a $100,000 scholarship during this year’s PAC-12 Championship football game on November 30th.

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Shaylon Cochran/KDLL


From The Headlines: Study Links High Turbidity To High Boat Traffic

Last week, Peninsula Clarion Reporter Rashah McChesney wrote about a preliminary study done by the Kenai Watershed Forum in contract with the Department of Environmental Conservation identifying a link between increased boat traffic on the Kenai River and increased turbidity levels that exceed state standards for water quality.  Here’s our conversation from the headlines:

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-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


A New Paradigm: Salmon Task Force Meets In Soldotna

The Task Force organized in October to address issues related to the Department of Fish and Game’s king salmon management plan met for the first of four meetings Friday at Kenai Peninsula College.

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The task force was put together in October, a result of one of the worst king salmon fishing seasons on record.  Chaired by Board of Fish members Tom Kluberton of Talkeetna and Vince Webster of King Salmon, the panel has one objective: to give the Board of Fish recommendations on possible changes to the Kenai River Late Run King Salmon Management Plan before it’s meeting in March.  If nearly eight hours of discussion on just the first day of four scheduled meetings is any indication, that’s much easier said than done.  Webster summed up the panel’s purpose succinctly during a public comment period.

But before any recommendations were made, there was a lot of discussion about what information is necessary to make those recommendations, where it should come from and just how detailed it needs to be.  An early pattern in the discussion was whether concrete numbers regarding projected run strength, escapement and more, are even necessary; the argument being that whatever the management numbers come out to be, the problem of a fixed management plan persists.

Kevin Delaney is a biologist and the former Director Sportfishing for the Department of Fish and Game and now does consulting work, namely for the Kenai River Sportfishing  Association.  He said those numbers are important, but must be looked at in a broader context.

“There is uncertainty around everything we do.  Mother nature is not kind to our technology,” Delaney said.  ”Some days we are highly certain of what we’re assessing.  Other days, we’re operating in a fog, of sorts, only we can put numerical bounds around this fog.  That’s what statistics is all about.  I’ve always been (as a fishery manager) a person who embraces that uncertainty and tries to embody it in the plans that we make and the implementation strategies,” Delaney said.

Members of the force took turns at the microphone voicing concerns about data, how it’s gathered, what it means and how important it is to managing fisheries.

“I’m a builder, I like to work from the ground up (and) I’d like to start with the data,” said Rob Williams, President of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association and a member of the Task Force.  ”Our immediate worry right now is what happened in 2012, and then then other thing I think is important to understand is where do you draw the line between a few hundred king salmon short and not being able to harvest a million sockeye?  Who’s call is that…especially on these bumper sockeye runs?” Williams wondered.

Toward the end of the first days’ discussions, one thing was very clear.  We’re in a new paradigm of low king salmon abundance and that affects all user groups around the Kenai River.

“Like a good marriage, I think something like this needs compromise on both sides of the table,” said Task Force member Dennis Gease, who is representing personal use interests on the panel.  ”I’ve got friends on both sides of the table…and I’ve got some of those friends that say ‘we won’t give them a damn thing. They’re not taking anything from us, they’ve already got too much’ and that’s the wrong attitude.  We all have to come here willing to give up something or in the end, none of us will have anything,” Gease told the panel.

The recommendations and proposals put forth Friday will be reviewed and more time for comments about those and other ideas will be made at the next Task Force meeting December 14th at the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Slow Vehicle Turnouts Planned For Sterling Highway Between Soldotna, Homer

The state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is developing a Highway Safety Improvement Program project that will construct Slow Vehicle Turnouts on the Sterling Highway.  The project would add 22 of the turnouts to reduce injuries and fatalities between Soldotna and Bay Crest Hill in Homer.

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The proposed turnouts would be the best way to mitigate collisions on the Sterling Highway in the short term, according to a DOT crash pattern analysis done between 2004 and 2008.  In those five years, a total of 613 crashes were reported, including six fatalities and almost 200 injuries.  Half of the fatal injuries were head-on collisions.

The analysis outlined some of the reasons for those crash statistics, describing what frequent drivers of the highway probably have already observed. From the report: 55-percent of the traffic on the Sterling highway in the summer months is made up of RV’s, delivery trucks, commercial vehicles and vehicles pulling trailers.  The mixture of lower speed, ‘sightseeing’, RV and boat hauling drivers with more aggressive weekend fishing trip drivers causes conflict and results in driver impatience, inattention, excessive speed, improper passing fatigue and more.  The situation becomes more complex in the summer months when as many 7,000 vehicles travel that stretch of highway each day.  In the winter months, that number drops to about 2,500.

Part of the problem is too many drivers traveling at different speeds, but on top of that, the report recognized a total lack of dedicated passing lanes and slow vehicle turnouts, or SVT’s, on the 72 miles of highway that was analyzed.

The solution proposed by DOT is the installation of 22 SVT’s.  The analysis said passing lanes would be desirable, there are simply too few one-mile stretches of highway that don’t involve wetlands or visibility constraints.  The department used a set of five criteria to determine placement of the turnouts.  They will be placed according to where they would provide the most benefit, where sight distance is available for slow vehicles to reenter the highway, at or near where crashes have occurred, where there are no apparent environmental impacts or utility issues and where turnouts or passing lanes could be constructed with minimal widening of the roadway.

The department cites a National Cooperative Highway Research Program report that suggests a reduction in all fatal and injurious crashes of forty-percent, and reduction in all crashes of thirty-percent.  Incidents where a vehicle runs off the road is the type of crash that would be most susceptible to correction with the SVT’s.  Head on, rear end and lane-changing crashes are also anticipated to be reduced.

A series of public meetings is scheduled for later this month beginning at Homer Middle School on November 27th, Ninilchik School the following day and Tustumena Elementary on November 29th.  All meetings will be from 4 pm to 7 pm.  The project is scheduled to begin next year.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-